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Pakistani Couple Returns Home After 7 Months in Church Sanctuary

A Pakistani couple is returning to New Britain, Connecticut, after living in a church for seven months. Immigration officials have decided not to deport them while their case is pending in federal appeals court.

When the couple left the First Congressional Church of Old Lyme, members of the congregation lined up on each side of the walkway in front, ready to greet the happy couple.  

Zahida Altaf and her husband Malik Naveed bin Rehman descended the church steps in what looked like a wedding procession. They stopped to laugh, and cry and hug friends.

Instead of ushers, Pastor Steve Jungkeit and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut escorted Altaf and Rehman to – not a limo – but a gray mini-van. An appointment at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, awaits in Hartford.

Altaf thanked those who have supported the family since March.

“Thank you so much and we still need your prayers, your love, and your support. Please keep us in your prayer. Thank you.”

“I love you all,” said Rehman.

Altaf and Rehman went into hiding at the church because ICE considers it a sensitive location where officials will not enter. In Hartford, officers will service their ankle monitors before the couple can return to their 5-year-old daughter – who’s a U.S. citizen – and tend to their pizza shop in New Britain.

Glenn Formica, who represents them, said, “To sum it up in 10 seconds today, it’s a relief. It’s not a victory. I think that’s where we’re at right now.”

Pastor Jungkeit agrees.

“Over the past seven months, it had sometimes felt as though this day would never arrive. We dreamed about it, we hoped for it, we prayed for it. But the days were often long and the nights were longer still, which is why I’m really thrilled to welcome all of you to this day of release from captivity."

Jungkeit met with ICE to ask that the couple be allowed to leave the church.

“Two times we went to the ICE offices, and we came as clergy, we came as ministers, simply asking them on behalf of Malik and Zahida to consider this case in all of its humanity, to consider this case in all of its depth.”

There is a lot of depth to this case. The couple arrived nearly 18 years ago on a temporary visa, but they were derailed from a path to citizenship – and swindled out of nearly $6,000 – when an immigration lawyer mishandled their paperwork. They have no criminal records. It’s now up to a judge to decide if they face enough danger in Pakistan to warrant staying in the U.S

Zahida Altaf and Malik Naveed bin Rehman speak to supporters inside the First United Congressional Church of Old Lyme on Tuesday, after learning that they'd been granted a stay of removal by immigration officials.
Zahida Altaf and Malik Naveed bin Rehman speak to supporters inside the First United Congressional Church of Old Lyme on Tuesday, after learning that they'd been granted a stay of removal by immigration officials.
CASSANDRA BASLER / WSHU